James Cook’s New World, A Novel. Graeme Lay. 2014

James Cook’s New World, A Novel. Graeme Lay. 2014

Lay, Graeme. 
James Cook’s New World, A Novel. 
Fourth Estate. 
ISBN 978-1-7755-4041-0. 

Graeme Lay’s second book in his three novels about the life of Captain James Cook covers the months leading up to, as well as the three years of, the Second Voyage (13 July 1772-30 July 1775).  As is the case with his first novel about Cook,1 this volume incorporates the literary device of a “secret diary” about the voyage that Cook writes for only Elizabeth, to be shared with her upon his return.  The author incorporates some entries from Cook’s journal into the text, as well as imaginary letters to his wife during the voyage to be carried by faster vessels bound for London from such locations as Funchal, Madeira, and the Cape of Good Hope.

The first eighty pages of the book concern James and Elizabeth’s meeting with King George III and the Earl of Sandwich, during which he receives his commission as Captain and plans are laid for a Second Voyage of discovery.  Cook and his wife visit his Yorkshire family, a difficult trip by coach for the pregnant Elizabeth.  He also travels to Whitby to visit John Walker and family.  Readers encounter family scenes at their home on Mile End, London, with Nan the Goat and a small backyard pond with tadpoles, which amuse their sons James and Nathaniel.  The author creates tension and conflict between James and Elizabeth regarding another long sea voyage—their “personal insoluble dilemma”, as Graeme Lay terms it.

The story then turns to the conflict with Joseph Banks over the naturalist’s plans for the Second Voyage and Banks’ eventual withdrawal from Resolution.  Cook departs on the Second Voyage just weeks before Elizabeth is due to give birth to what will be their fifth, but only third surviving, child.  Word arrives just as Resolution weighs anchor, preventing Cook from seeing their new son, George.  Throughout the nearly three years that follow, Cook assumes all is well with his family, but the reader knows baby George survives for only a few weeks, adding poignancy to Cook’s references in the secret journal.  Once again, Elizabeth is alone to face her sorrow.

The novel surveys many highlights of the Second Voyage.  It is not a complete narrative of events.  The author explains the Admiralty’s Instructions for the voyage, which focuses on reaching and circumnavigating the unknown southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita, during the Antarctic summer months, and then using Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand, as a home port, exploring known or hoped-for new Pacific lands during the Antarctic Winter. 

The Admiralty provided two vessels, Resolution and Adventure, for the Second Voyage.  After the ships separated in an Antarctic fog on 8 February, 1773, a reunion in New Zealand, separation a second time in a storm off Cape Palliser, Cook and the men of Resolution were on their own.  The novel covers the loss of contact with Adventure, the failure of Captain Furneaux to maintain dietary regulations to prevent scurvy, the later massacres at Grass Cove, the curious behaviour of the Maori when Resolution returned, and the suspicion and confirmation of cannibalism.

In Graeme Lay’s first novel, Joseph Banks serves as Cook’s antagonist.  In his second novel, Johann Forster fills that role.  Forster criticizes Cook’s handling of discipline and the character and behaviour of the crew.  He dislikes Antarctic cold weather sailing.  Like Banks, he challenged Cook’s unwillingness to allow the naturalists to go about their work of botanizing whenever and wherever they chose.  The novel depicts Cook as eventually despising Forster’s constant moralizing and sermonizing.  He takes Forster to task for shooting birds, sacred to the Tahitians, or for shooting a Tahitian male in the back after a landing-party fracas, which Cook labels “intolerable.”  At the Marquesas Islands and at Savage Island (Niue), Forster is the aggressor in attacking initially hostile natives, and Cook is the peacemaker (although no accommodation was actually reached at the brief landing on Savage Island).  Cook refuses to allow Forster to bring a native as a servant back to England.  Forster raged at the decision, calling Cook “obstinate”.  Cook thought Forster a “dedicated naturalist”, but noted Forster’s “unstable temperament and self-centred attitude [which] make him a continuing trial to our company”. 

However, there is one positive incident.  In the novel, it is Forster who brings Cook a bowl of broth to help recovery from weeks of intestinal pain, broth made from Forster’s Tahitian dog, sacrificed for the cause of improved health for the Captain and others. 

How does the novel characterize Captain Cook?  He emerges in the novel’s pages as the capable, sober, competent captain documented by many writers.  In matters of religion, Cook is depicted as an 18th century humanist.  In his secret diary for Elizabeth he states he is more concerned with “individual beliefs over clerical dogma”, and wonders why a benevolent God would allow the premature deaths of his siblings and two of their children.  Throughout the voyage Cook periodically suffers from pain in the legs, groin, and stomach.  For many weeks Cook is confined to bed in misery, and daily responsibilities for Resolution are turned over to Lieutenant Robert Cooper. 

We also learn of Cook’s melancholia caused by the failure to discover new lands.  At age 46, Cook speculates about his own mortality—so much family life missed due to his “love of the sea and determination to discover, explore and chart new lands...  My health has suffered during this voyage, and continues to give me concern.  The bilious colic and the constipation, although intermittent, have not left me. I often sleep poorly”.  In passages such as these the novelist provides a useful dimension to what we know about Cook’s health and his absence from his family.

By the end of the novel, however, Cook decides that sailing as far South as possible to the impenetrable Antarctic ice barrier and not setting foot on the Southern Continent was a contribution to navigation and geography.  He also rationalized that the discovery of New Caledonia and Norfolk Island met the test of new territories added to the Crown.  After visiting South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands Cook concludes with one of his most famous journal passages, “The Southern Hemisphere [has been] sufficiently explored and a final end put to the searching after a Southern Continent, which has at times engrossed the attention of some of the maritime powers for near two centuries past and the geographers of all ages.” 

I think the author provides a short, but sound, description of what it was like to sail below the Antarctic Convergence, and the hardship it created for sailors as well as Resolution.  He praises the work of artist William Hodges in capturing scenes during the voyage, and provides interesting vignettes of others in Resolution.

I do have several concerns.  The author refers to a 1756 Peace of Paris which brought an end to conflict with France.  I believe it is the 1763 Treaty of Paris that concluded the Seven Years’ War and led to a cessation of hostilities (until the later wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon).  My primary Cook research interests lie in Cook’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic voyages.  Here I think the novel gives short shrift to this critical part of the Second Voyage, especially to the January-March 1775 travel to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and then a final search for the elusive Cape Circumcision.  He does not mention the landing on South Georgia to claim the land for the Crown.  Also missing is the great disappointment for Cook that the land turned out to be an island and not the tip of the southern continent.  Cook’s journal notes he was awestruck at the South Georgia landscape.

In addition, much more could have been made by the novelist of the excursions to gather floating ice for drinking water, viewing the appearance of the Aurora Australis, or the many penguins, seals, whales and waterfowl encountered.  That water made from floating ice was not salty was a clue to the nature of icebergs.  Lay does mention Cook and the naturalists speculated on the formation of Ice Islands (icebergs), a scientific unknown in the mid-1770s. 

I do not think it imaginable that a physically weak Cook left his cabin sick bed to climb onto the bowsprit on January 1774 at the impenetrable Antarctic Wall at 71° South, so that he could claim he travelled “further than any other man.”  George Vancouver later claimed this honour and Anders Sparrman claimed his cabin in Resolution actually placed him further south.2  A good deal more could have been made of what Cook termed “Mr. Kendall’s Clock”, the naval chronometer’s accuracy, and the impact its testing had for accurate calculation of longitude.  Graeme Lay mentions Resolution passing Hervey Island but does not state that it was one of what later became known as the Cook Islands.  He doesn’t mention that Johann and George Forster inspected hot springs and nearby rocks near the erupting volcano on the Pacific island of Tanna.3  This event surely would have provided novelist Lay with an entertaining vignette of Forster perhaps climbing alongside the volcano with his prized thermometer to conduct further vulcanology experiments.

At the end of the novel Cook reaches the Cape of Good Hope to find a nearly three years’ old letter from Elizabeth and the sad, unexpected news of son George’s death.  In her letter, she upbraids Cook for leaving her alone to face family grief.  A second blow follows.  Cook obtains copies of the Hawkesworth edition of his journal of the First Voyage.  Cook rages about “misrepresentation and inaccuracies” in the account, and destroys the books.  In the final chapter, Cook returns to England to tell Elizabeth that his days of long sea voyages are over, thus setting up the reader for Graeme Lay’s final novel about Captain James Cook. 

I am usually sceptical about reading historical fiction, but not in this instance.  Cook enthusiasts need not fear that the Captain Cook created by the novelist is an unrecognizable libertine, hell-bent for conquest of new lands, caring neither for friend or foe or the welfare of his ship and crew.  This is one of the few historical novels that contain a bibliography, citing such easily-recognizable authors as JC Beaglehole, Allan Villiers, Anne Salmond, Richard Hough and John Robson, as well as the Beaglehole Hakluyt Society edition of Cook’s journals.  The author obviously drew on these accounts in shaping his novel.  Cook’s Log Editor, Ian Boreham, is also acknowledged. 

In my opinion, for the most part, the conversations, letters, events created by the author’s imagination fit traditional, believable image we have about Captain Cook, both as an individual and as a navigator.  A novelist is entitled to create imaginary scenarios in telling a story.  Graeme Lay’s second novel about Cook presents a thoughtful consideration of Captain Cook without obscuring the factual or serious historical record.  The novel could be useful to introduce someone to Cook who does not read “traditional” history.

James C. Hamilton


  1. Lay, Graeme.  The Secret Life of James Cook.  Fourth Estate.  2013. ISBN 978-1-77554-012-0.  Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 46, vol. 36, no. 3 (2013). 
  2. Cook’s Log, page 46, vol. 36, no. 3 (2013).
  3. Beaglehole, J.C.  The Life of Captain James Cook.  Hakluyt Society.  1974.  Page 365, n. 1.
  4. Forster, Johann ReinholdObservations Made During a Voyage Round the WorldEdited by Nicholas Thomas, Harriet Guest, and Michael Dettelbach.  The University of Hawai’i Press.  1996.  Pages 45-48.  

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 37, number 4 (2014).

Leave a comment

your email address will not be published

Thank you for your response. It will be evaluated by a moderator and published.